Friday, April 3, 2015

TOMMIE SAYLOR: It's poverty, not inadequate schools, that drives poor educational performance

“We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless.  The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty.  We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.”
-- Mother Teresa

By Tommie Saylor
Kennedy High School Principal

Research shows a correlation between poverty and the performance of students in school.  In fact, the mountain of research conducted over the last few years by both highly reputable private and governmental agencies clearly demonstrates that the biggest barrier student’s face in achieving a quality education is poverty. 

If you think about it, this makes sense.  Algebra is not very high on the list of priorities when you have siblings you need to care for, a job you need to work after school to help support the family, when your home life is chaotic and all you are trying to do is survive. 

When school is the only stable element in your life, you enjoy and maybe even look forward to coming to school.  Once at school you are able to relax and maybe even feel a little guilty for not having the time to complete your homework, begin to unwind and perhaps fall asleep.  For those students who live in poverty, school is more of a safe haven where a multitude of services are freely provided, than a place for learning.

Research also shows (according to a Washington Post article published in May of 2013 by Valerie Strauss titled “What if Finland’s great teachers taught in U.S. schools?”) that the United States ranks at the bottom of the list of the 29 wealthiest countries in regards to the number of students living in poverty.  In fact, it states that some 23 percent of our children live in absolute poverty where less than 4 percent of the children in Finland live under such conditions. 

This is one of the reasons why Finland consistently scores near the top of the list in international student test scores.  They figured it out!  They realized that if they are able to pull their families out of poverty, their students perform much better in school. They found that the link between poverty and student performance is directly proportional.

This article continues by saying that research confirms that teachers and schools “alone, regardless of how effective they are, will not be able to overcome the challenges that poor children bring with them to schools everyday.”

Underperforming schools are not necessarily the result of bad teachers, bad administrators and bad schools, yet a result of the living conditions the students who occupy that school must live with each and every day.  Try as we might, more is not always good enough.

We work 10, 11 or 12 hours a day often without a break. We go without lunch. We call parents, prepare lessons, teach, tutor, and fundraise so we can send home clothing to those who need it. We can send home food with those who need it, provide for medical care, dental care, physiological care, and then go back to teaching.  But it still isn’t always enough.

Until our nation decides to stop blaming teachers and schools for all its ills, and begins to accept the responsibility for the conditions in which their citizens live, our schools will never be found at the top of any international list. 

The notion that improving teaching by constant evaluations, extreme oversight, and constant testing is, according to the article, a fallacy.  This story says that, “up to two-thirds of what explains student achievement is beyond the control of schools, i.e., family background and motivation to learn.”  As hard as teachers, administrators and schools work, the outcome is often well beyond our control. 

Our nation needs to stop “grinding” teachers and schools under its heel and start placing more efforts into helping those in need.  If we want the kind of test scores currently being enjoyed by countries like Finland, Canada, and South Korea, then we need to follow their lead. We need to learn from their example, spend the time and efforts on helping people as opposed to placing the blame on those of us who are fighting on the “front lines.”

What starts here, changes the world. Making Kennedy the school of choice. Excellence by design….

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